Cost of school district’s software upgrade keeps going up

Manatee County School District administration building in downtown Bradenton.
Manatee County School District administration building in downtown Bradenton. Herald file photo

The costs of a troubled software project are coming into focus as the School District of Manatee County works to regain its footing.

School board Chairman Scott Hopes said a recent estimate of $20.1 million was based solely on costs linked to Ciber, a vendor hired to implement Manatee’s new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, PeopleSoft.

But the project’s entire price tag, he said, is closer to $27 million.

“It’s just a more accurate accounting of where we stand on the total cost of the project,” he said.

New estimates include maintenance contracts, licensing fees, employee salaries and other factors. District employees are constantly working overtime to fix dozens of issues with the system, Hopes said.

The software was supposed to digitize and simplify the district’s business operations. Hopes said the project grew in complexity, making it hard to fix bugs or remove unneeded features.

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In a prepared statement, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said the school board will receive an update at its Nov. 13 workshop. The meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W.

“The purpose of presenting the report during a Board Workshop is to allow all five School Board members to hear the report in a public setting and to allow all of the board members to ask questions and receive public comment,” Saunders wrote.

“It would not be prudent of me to comment on various aspects of the ERP project prior to that presentation,” she continued.

The five-year cost of implementing and maintaining the ERP system was supposed to total about $9.83 million, according to a March 2016 update from district employees.

By the time it went live on July 1, the software was already $10 million over budget and more than a year behind schedule. The project had expanded to include Manatee Technical College, and it was hamstrung by several internal and external problems.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Hopes to the school board in July 2017. The board chair is now defending his seat against Joe Stokes, a retired principal and district administrator, in this year’s general election.

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Hopes revealed the $27 million estimate in a recent candidate interview, drawing a connection between his business experience and the need for an ERP solution.

The superintendent reportedly updated Hopes during a meeting several months ago.

Hopes said the district is now reviewing invoices and working with Ciber to potentially reduce costs, especially since work was completed without school board authorization.

A consultant identified $107,000 in unauthorized purchases during his review last August.

“We’re not paying invoices until we can verify the amount that we’ve been billed is the amount we actually owe, that it’s in compliance with the agreements,” Hopes said.

The original agreement with Ciber was approved in March 2016 — the district’s first mistake, according to Hopes.

He believes the contract failed to state clear milestones, allowing Ciber employees to rack up hourly fees and travel expenses while the project expanded.

“This was an agreement that provided an open checkbook to do a project that no one in the district had experience doing before,” he said on Monday.

About one year later, Ciber filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Though HTC Global Services later acquired the business, Capgemini was the top bidder in April 2017, when the school board received an update.

“Which is an excellent opportunity for us because they’re the Mercedes-Benz of this type of business,” said Ron Ciranna, the former deputy superintendent of business services and operations, during his update.

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Hopes feels the board should have terminated its agreement with the consulting company. A bid process would have ensued, he said, and it’s possible Ciber would have recovered and won the new contract.

“When you have a company in bankruptcy, you stop and you take a timeout,” he said. “You figure out whether or not you can continue to invest in that company.”

And perhaps the most pressing issue, according to district staff and internal auditors, was the lack of resources.

Attempting to underscore his early efforts, Hopes pointed to a conversation at his first school board meeting. During the workshop on July 25, 2017, he emphasized the need for more project members, tighter goals and open communications.

The ERP team was short-staffed, and Hopes felt the district should focus on getting the most out of its new system. It would be a mistake, he said, to focus efforts on molding the system to meet past business practices or expectations.

“You stated whether we’re going to bring more positions to the board, and we simply can’t afford to, although we want to,” Ciranna said.

“Let me ask this differently: can we afford not to?” Hopes responded.

The troubling reality became clear after former Superintendent Diana Greene left for another district, Hopes said on Monday.

On her first day as the interim superintendent, Saunders was allegedly asked by Ciranna, the deputy superintendent, to increase ERP spending by $2 million.

The district later placed Ciranna on administrative leave, followed by Robert Malloy, the district’s chief information technology officer; and Angie Oxley, the ERP project manager.

Along with unauthorized spending, Hopes believes board members were misled about the project’s status. Ciranna has since filed for retirement, Malloy submitted his resignation and Oxley remains on leave.

District attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said an internal investigation is ongoing.

And the status of outside inquires, mainly by the Florida Auditor General and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, are unclear.

Meanwhile, it seems historical problems still exist. In their Sept. 6 report, internal auditors faulted the district for not immediately advertising needed jobs, and for delaying access to the system, which slowed audits.

Byron Shinn, the firm’s partner-in-charge, addressed board members on Sept. 11, noting that his relationship with the district “deteriorated to a level in the past year that was very stressful.”

But he also noted a positive shift in the district’s tone. Shinn emphasized the importance of strong leadership, a quality he saw in Saunders and her staff.

“It isn’t slow us down, give us excuses, etcetera,” he said. “The point of the matter is, it’s a new day.”